This is the message I preached at St. Timothy's and St. Mark's (with one change). The text is from The Message Bible, John 15: 1-8.
Have you ever been so hungry that you felt like you were about to faint? You are at a friend's house and you see that on the table in front of you is an inviting, delectable-looking bowl of fruit. It must be there to be eaten, so you grab one of your very favorite fruit--your mouth is watering, you can almost taste it-----and then, much to your disappointment, you discover that it is a piece of wax fruit, the fruit is fake. It may look good, but it is phony.
We are a church that loves to eat, aren't we? We love our fellowship time with coffee, tea and all kinds of goodies. Food is something we know a lot about. This passage from John's gospel is not some hard to figure out parable. Vines and grapes and branches were very familiar to the disciples, just as they are to us. It was and still is a common Jewish metaphor.
In the Old Testament the vineyard was symbolic of either the land itself or the people of Israel. As the "Real Vine," Jesus is taking an image for Israel and applying it to himself. The identification of the people of God with a particular nation is replaced with a particular man who incorporates in himself the new people of God made up of Jews and non-Jews .In the first three gospels, the vineyard is an image of the kingdom of God and in John's gospel, the vine is Christ. John reinterprets this well-known imagery to give us a picture of Christians united together in Christ.
God's people are a mixed bag and sometimes need disciplining. Jesus speaks of the Father cutting off non-fruit bearing branches and that they are dead wood only good for the bonfire. It's worth noting that Jesus is not addressing the crowds or outsiders when he says this. He is speaking to insiders, to believers who already know him. As branches, believers either bear fruit and are pruned to bear more fruit or do not bear fruit and are thrown away and burned. The crucified and risen Christ is the strong vine without which we die.
What is the fruit God is looking for? There are different ideas about what the symbol of fruit is referring to. Some scholars believe it is that of bearing witness to Jesus, the fruit of
evangelism. Other scholars believe the fruit is the ethical virtues characteristic of the Christian life. Fruit symbolizes what is at the very heart of both Christian witness and ethics--union with God.
In today’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” How does this apply to us? Our society is not communal, like that of the Holy Land. We have a problem. Especially in our culture, we pride ourselves on our independent, can do by ourselves and don't need anyone else's help, way of life. We focus on personal achievement and success. We easily become frustrated when we feel so inadequate. We have always been happy to help anyone in need, but the idea of our needing help and having to ask for it is hard.
However, in theChristian life being inadequate is a good thing. God calls us. God is the vine grower, Jesus the vine and we are the branches. We cannot live faithfully on our own. Jesus said, "Separated, [from me] you can't produce a thing" (v. 5). If we look closely at a healthy grapevine, can we tell where one branch begins and one ends? They are so intertwined with each other that you can barely see the vine. In one sense though, if you see the healthy branches, you see the vine as they display the vine's life.
Isn't that how our life in Christ is supposed to be? We are to live lives of community together, not in isolation. We should be able to turn to our Christian family when we have a problem. When people see us, they should see Jesus because his life is in us and is lived out through us. Christ's life in us and through us touches the lives of others.
Without a relationship of connectedness to Christ, the vine, the church is:
powerless (vv. 4-5)
wordless (vv. 3, 7)
prayerless (v. 7)
fruitless (vv. 2-8)
hopeless (vv. 2, 6)
In fact, one may question if an organization calling itself a church, actually is one if the characteristics it displays are prayerlessness, fruitlessness etc. It might as well be a club.The mark of a faithful Christian community, is how it loves, not who its members are.
Making ourselves at home with Jesus and his words (v. 7) includes being in union with him, sharing his thoughts, emotions and power. For a relationship to work, both parties must be engaged. God has already taken the initiative and provides the means and the ability for us to be united with him.
How then are we responding to God's overtures? An intimate relationship between Jesus and his disciples was not for a community that just wanted business as usual, to rest and take it easy. This is also for a community, like the one here at St.Timothy’s, engaged in service to God and our neighbors. Jesus' words, "Live in me" is more than good advice, more than an invitation. It is a promise that no matter what, Jesus will hold onto us.
Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV
Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B
InterVarsity Press New Testament Commentary
New English Translation Notes